Publications of experts CACDS - Southern Caucasus

Rauf RADZHABOV: Idlib “Gordian knot”. Russian Zeitnot against Turkish Zugzwang

Photo: AP

The attack on Turkish military columns and objects, leading to dozens of dead Turkish soldiers, has taken the military component of the confrontation in Syrian Idlib to a new level. Ankara was left with no choice, and Turkey responded firmly and decisively, with Bashar al-Assad's troops suffering significant casualties in manpower and technology. Turkey has, among other things, received and demonstrated to the world its own experience of the mass use of shock unmanned aerial complexes, to which the enemy was situationally unprepared. The world's media and social media feeds are rife with "front-line" reports, often overly hyperbolized, depending on the likes or dislikes of the authors.

However, this escalation does not significantly change the schedules of the main actors in the Syrian TVD. I may be disappointed by many, but the current events in Idlib province in the short term will not lead to a direct frontal military Russian-Turkish confrontation in the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR). Although the forces under the control of the President of the SAR, Bashar al-Assad, conduct offensive / counter-offensive operations in Idlib province not without "approval" and without coordination with Russia. Moscow and Ankara are forming their starting positions for new talks, which are due to take place soon.

At the same time, neither the Kremlin nor the official Ankara have announced their refusal or termination of the Astana and Sochi agreements. The Kremlin is generally interested in involving Turkey in the peace process initiated by the Russian Federation. this should help legitimize Russian efforts in the SAR. And the possible direct Russian-Turkish military confrontation in Idlib province is actually a failure of the Astana and Sochi formats.

It can be assumed that the leadership of Moscow and Ankara eventually reached the following compromise on Idlib: the official Damascus retains control of the highway to Aleppo plus transport routes to Latakia and areas south of it, with the government forces of the SAR with their pro-Iranian allies refuse further moving forward. Thus, fixing a new line of demarcation.

However, such an agreement, like the other closest formats of the Russian-Turkish compromise on the Idlib issue, will be temporary, as they are unlikely to include iron points on the future state structure of the SAR, Syrian Kurds, as well as the factor of Libya.

The overriding interests of the players

Turkish President RT Erdogan opposing the further advance of Syrian government troops in Idlib province in his logic of rights for two reasons:

- first, Turkey and EU countries are unable to accommodate more than 1 million new Syrian refugees (this lever of pressure on EU Ankara has already been launched);

- Secondly, in the event of official Damascus control over Idlib province, the remaining Arab-Sunni and Turkoman populations do not recognize the authority of the Arab-Alawites and the pro-Iranian Shiites.

Therefore, continued civil strife in the north of the CAP is inevitable. The foreign policy course of official Ankara in the SAR is directly opposite to the Russian one. RT Erdogan considers an illegitimate Syrian president, and intends to change the government in Damascus at any cost to a pro-Turkish one under the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Tehran also believes that official Ankara is not only seeking to spread Turkish geopolitical influence in the SAR, but also in the Middle East as a whole. Iran, with strong ties to B.Al-Assad, and Turkey apparently compete for control of the roads from Aleppo to Latakia and Damascus. Official Tehran seeks to retain a strategic corridor towards the Mediterranean.

The Kremlin, while maintaining leverage for conflict management and demonstrating that "everything is under control," is forced to spend additional resources on its Syrian campaign in light of the latest escalation. The Kremlin's intransigence is explained by the fact that the defeat of B.Al-Assad's forces in the event of an attack by the Turkish Armed Forces is tantamount to a geopolitical catastrophe for Russia. And not only in the Middle and Middle East, it will have a direct impact on other important Kremlin strategic regions - Ukraine, Transnistria, South Caucasus, Central Asia (CA).

The Kremlin intends to continue to assist B. Al-Assad in bringing the entire SAR territory under control. To this end, the Russian side will still seek to complete the defeat of the radical Islamist group "Hayat Tahrir al-Sham" (HTSC) in Idlib province, as jihadists pose an immediate threat to the Khmeimim Russian air base and Tartus naval base.

The elimination of HTSC in the north of the SAR will allow the Kremlin to gain a foothold in the eastern Mediterranean region, increase the authority of the Russian Federation in the Arab world, and neutralize RT Erdogan's attempts to establish Turkish hegemony in the Middle and Middle East. Therefore, official Moscow will increase the grouping of the Russian Navy in the Eastern Mediterranean to neutralize the threat from Turkey. Among other things, two Black Sea Fleet frigates have already been sent to the Mediterranean. Admiral Makarov and Admiral Grigorovich frigates, equipped with the Caliber-NK missile system, left Sevastopol and no obstacles were observed. They will join the Russian Navy operating in the Mediterranean. The ships Admiral Makarov and Admiral Grigorovich have previously participated in the Russian operation against militants off the coast of the SAR.

Acting in its logic, after the defeat of the HTSh militants, official Moscow plans to conclude a long-term cooperation agreement with Damascus. This can be regarded as a geopolitical defeat of Turkey in certain schedules, since Moscow, not Ankara, will determine the foreign policy (and not only) of the SAR vector.

In other words, the Kremlin is seeking to complete a military operation in the SAR to subsequently redirect its operations to the western borders of the Russian Federation, including Ukraine.

In the context of pressure on the official Ankara, the Kremlin may engage, etc. "The Kurdish question." Prior to current events in Idlib province, Syrian Kurds feared that the Kremlin, amid restraint in Ankara, could allow Turkey to take control of the Kurdish city of Kobani at the Syrian-Turkish state border in exchange for Turkish concessions in northern Syrian provinces. But that didn't happen (as it was in 2018, when official Moscow agreed to capture Afrin from the Turkish Armed Forces).

As a result, Syrian Kurds cooperate with the Syrian government army in areas along the Afro border.

In the same Moscow logic of events, Syrian Kurds in the north of the SAR, seeing the weakening of official Ankara's positions, can begin an active dialogue with the Russian Federation and the official Damascus with the obvious goal of achieving the establishment of Kurdish autonomy in the north. Therefore, official Ankara had to resume patrolling along the Russian-Russian border with the Syrian-Turkish state border even before the last escalation. Moreover, Turkish Kurds in the person of the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) can, in principle, receive modern weapons from the SAR authorities, which can lead to an escalation of civil war in Turkey.

The deepening contradictions of Turkey with European countries in the Eastern Mediterranean are also contributing to the strengthening of Russia's positions in the SAR. The controversy between France and Turkey has increased markedly in recent times. France supports the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Khalifa Haftar, and most importantly, he is dissatisfied with Turkey over the actions of the official Ankara in the Eastern Mediterranean. France has openly endorsed Greece and the Republic of Cyprus, whose relations with Turkey are experiencing another sharpening today due to official Ankara's aspirations to develop oil and gas fields located in the exclusive economic zone of the Republic of Cyprus. As a result, official Paris sent a striking group to the eastern Mediterranean to the French Navy strike group led by nuclear carrier Charles de Gaulle, and hoped that it would be accompanied by the warships of Germany, Belgium, Greece, Spain, the Netherlands, and Portugal.

The de facto launch of the US presidential campaign is forcing official Washington to refrain from active military involvement in Syria until 2021. The United States is still in a favorable position for itself.

Official Ankara's rapprochement with the White House administration was dictated only by increased pressure on the Kremlin. Official Washington did not respond to a request by Turkish authorities to deploy two Patriot SAM batteries in southern Turkey. Patriot SAMs need Ankara to launch a full-scale offensive in the Syrian province of Idlib, as the offensive without the support of the Air Force is doomed to failure. In other words, if official Ankara really wants to support its ally-counterparts B. al-Assad in Idlib province, Turkey needs to engage its F-16 fighters to support the ground operation. But in this case, the Turkish F-16 in the airspace of the SAR will meet with the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation. The United States can help "solve" this problem, provided, at least, the suspension of the contract and the preservation of the Russian-made S-400 SAMs purchased by the Turkish side. But such a scenario is not seen as an option in the near future.

NATO, in turn, does not intend to provide Turkey with military support in the event of a Turkish operation in northern Africa. In other words, Article 5 of the NATO Charter will not be involved. NATO considers Turkey "more than capable of standing alone in the event of the need for a Syrian army in Idlib." But the Alliance is concerned about the potential risks of an official Ankara clash with the allies of the SAR - Iran and the Russian Federation. The fact is that not all NATO nations in Europe share Turkey's goals in the SAR, let alone the situation in Libya. Official Ankara, among other things, is already violating a UNSC resolution banning the supply of arms and mercenaries to Libya.

Also, official Ankara is in competition with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) on the SAR and Libya. Today, Riyadh official considers the Turkish threat to be a major challenge for the KSF - even bigger than the Iranian one. For example, the League of Arab States (LAG) recently said that Turkey should not interfere in the affairs of Arab countries, especially when it comes to Syria.

Israel is unlikely to support Turkey's long-term military presence in the SAR. In turn, France, the KSF and other Arab countries also want Turkey's departure from the SAR and Libya. The EU's decision to launch a joint arms embargo operation on the supply of arms to Libyan parties is aimed primarily at Turkey. It is the official Ankara that has recently been actively transporting weapons and armored vehicles across the Mediterranean.

In other words, the Russian Federation, France, the United Kingdom, China and the United States will insist on the embargo on Libya. Otherwise, the EU may propose a joint military operation in the Mediterranean against ships deploying weapons and armored vehicles to Libya.

The military action of the Turkish Armed Forces in Idlib is aimed at concluding from the Kremlin and official Damascus in expanding Turkish military and political influence in the northern provinces of the SAR, including in Idlib. The loss of Idlib province to official Ankara is tantamount to withdrawing Turkish forces from all Syrian cities controlled by Turkey in the north of the SAR: Afrin, Ras al-Ain and Tel Abyad.

Official Ankara is unlikely to be able to fully transition under the control of the strategic highway M5 Hama-Aleppo. Consequently, Turkey is unable to eliminate the threat posed by the army of B. al-Assad in connection with the withdrawal of parts of the SAR armed forces on the way to supply groupings in Idlib province from the Turkish territory.

The Turkish Armed Forces are likely to organize a "safe zone" in Idlib province, creating reinforced defensive positions along the front lines and supplying the Syrian opposition with heavy weapons, especially the MANPADS. This strategy is indicated by the fact that not too long ago two helicopters of the Syrian army in Idlib were shot down by MANPADS. Deliveries to the opponents of B. al-Assad MANPAD increase the risk that the Russian aircraft will be shot down, so we are watching for now.

A separate stratum for research is the internal political situation in Turkey, the development of which is one of the stimuli for the foreign expansion of RT Erdogan. Here, for now, we note that RT Erdogan is already facing increasing internal pressure, including in its ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Official Ankara cannot help but fear the destabilization of Turkey's domestic political situation. And the loss of Turkish control of the above territories will mean the geopolitical defeat of RT Erdogan, who became involved in a losing war, from which the country received no political and economic dividends.

Against this background, it can be expected that official Ankara will continue to support Ukraine in order to put pressure on the Kremlin. The recognition of the annexation of Crimea is not a matter of principle. It is possible to expect strengthening of requirements on restoration of the abused rights of the Crimean Tatars in Crimea, and also, for example, Circassians in Russia. Thus, RT Erdogan can demonstrate to the Russian Federation the threat of activation on the "Ukrainian issue" if the Kremlin does not compromise on the Idlib issue.


Turkey's inconsistent (to say the least) relations with the United States and other NATO members (France, Italy, Germany, etc.) adversely affect the negotiating positions of official Ankara with Russia and Iran over Syria.

Yes, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has accused the Syrian Air Force and "supporting" the Russian Air Force in the Syrian province of Idlib of "indiscriminate air strikes". The NATO leader called on the SAR and the Russian Federation to "stop its offensive, respect international law and support the UN's efforts to settle peace." J. Stoltenberg "called on all parties to contribute to the de-escalation of this dangerous situation and to avoid further aggravation of the horrific humanitarian situation in the region."

In his turn, the US Department of State, placing some of the responsibility on official Tehran, noted: "We support our NATO ally, Turkey, and continue to call for an immediate end to this hideous offensive carried out by the Assad, Russia and Iran-backed forces."

German Foreign Minister Haiko Mas called the actions of the Syrian army and the Russian military commissariat war crimes.

The list of "concerns" can be continued, but this is more likely the "mental support" of Ankara, which has little effect on current schedules.

The actual refusal of the US and NATO to provide military and technical assistance to official Ankara in Idlib province demonstrates, as yet, the flawed strategy of official Ankara. The Turkish leadership, represented by RT Erdogan, intended to use relations with the Russian Federation to strengthen the image of Turkey as a global player, without which it is impossible to do without in world affairs. However, RT Erdogan has not yet managed to achieve recognition of Iran's and Russia's special geopolitical interests in Syria. Therefore, Iran and Russia do not agree that official Ankara will have a permanent area of ​​responsibility and channels of influence in official SAR in Damascus. Turkey's long-term interests simply do not fit into the plans of Iran, the Russian Federation, especially Syria In light of this, official Ankara is doomed to adjust its Syrian policy in relations with Iran and Russia toward its toughening - with poorly predictable results.

The United States, for its part, is sending signals to RT Erdogan - to understand and decide - who is still a more reliable partner for official Ankara.

An official Ankara may, in principle, attempt to transform its military-political control into a political-economic one, assuming a long-term Turkish presence in Syria. Moreover, two-thirds of Syrians do not support, and any free vote with the participation of all SAR citizens will lead to a change of government in Damascus with all the ensuing consequences. The question of the tools of such a transformation remains open.

The simultaneous withdrawal of all foreign military contingents from the SAR or the conduct of a UN peacekeeping operation may lead to the end of civil war in that Arab country and the start of post-war settlement. But this is so far out of fantasy. In the absence of an agreement on the future of the SAR, in the future, one way or another, a phase of open armed confrontation in Syria with the participation of not only domestic players (official Damascus, pro-Iranian armed forces and the Syrian opposition), but also world players supporting them will be appropriate.

Rauf Rajabov, Orientalist, Head of Analytical Center 3RD VIEW, Baku, Azerbaijan